Streaming Review

Wife of a Spy review – immaculately staged and luxurious melodrama

A woman begins to suspect her husband is a spy in Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa's twist-filled wartime thriller

As an English silk merchant is dragged out of a house by imperialist guards, we hear him yelling: “This is absurd, what has Japan become?” It's this complex question that hangs over Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s wartime thriller Wife of a Spy, which won the Silver Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival – behind the feted Nomadland.

Kurosawa has spent much of his career within the confines of genre, refining the J-horror brand to the levels of the arthouse through films like Pulse and Cure. In recent years, he has worked closer to the social realism that Japanese filmmakers with international distribution often excel at. Wife of a Spy sits somewhere in the middle. It is a luxurious melodrama, filled with twists and half-turns, but it also takes its time to ease the audience into 1940s Japan.

Satoko (Yu Aoi) learns her husband Yusaku (Issey Takahashi), a wealthy silk manufacturer, is a spy. What happens next may astonish you, as they form a partnership of espionage. For the first time, she believes, the couple are on an equal footing. But before long, their bouts of subterfuge and performance expose cracks that may not be healed.

Wife of a Spy basks in its own theatricality, with immaculate staging that evokes our notions of classical cinema – at one point, the couple discuss the “new” Mitzoguchi. Characters use unexpected parts of the set, swap places in the frame, and then move nearer together, for close-ups that reveal new details about their relationship.

Light streams through office windows, whiting out the world beyond. Borders shift and close in, trapping the characters – literally, at one point, in a wooden box. Like much of Kurosawa’s work, it is about ghosts – unseen figures and characters whose traces linger on screen long after they are gone. Constantly, the film returns to cinema – that great modernising device – to confound, educate, or control the characters. This isn’t an ode to nostalgia, or even nostalgic for the films of the past, so much as it interrogates film’s inherent power.

To that end, Kurosawa’s use of digital photography is fascinating. One might recall Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, where the sets look exactly like sets, where lipstick looked freshly applied by make-up artists. But where that film’s use of handheld cameras proved a distraction, here the digital compliments the classicist photography and high-register action to emphasise emotion. It is heightened, it takes us out of the film’s reality, but isn’t that what melodrama is meant to do?

Wife of a Spy is now streaming on MUBI.

Where to watch

More Reviews...

Prisoners of the Ghostland review – an unbearable step backwards for Nicolas Cage

Sion Sono's film does the impossible and makes a story of a criminal warrior with explosives in his testicles into a boring chore

7 Prisoners review – profound and intimate look at modern slavery

Brazilian filmmaker Alexandre Moratto’s spare and enthralling social drama offers a lot more than just a story of suffering

The Maltese Falcon review – landmark film noir is still brilliant entertainment

John Huston's 1941 classic, back in cinemas for its 80th anniversary, is packed with unforgettable performances across the board

Rose Plays Julie review – an identity thriller you can’t take your eyes off

Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy's dazzling and evocative film explores serious themes while functioning as unashamed genre fare


Best Films to Watch in London and Stream This Week

From a classic of film noir to a thriller you can't take your eyes off, here's what to watch this weekend at home and in the capital...

Seven Days of Streaming: The Primal Charisma of Adam Driver

With the musical Annette now in UK cinemas, here's how to curate your own Adam Driver season at home in seven key films

Witness the Return of Neo in the Trailer for The Matrix Resurrections

Keanu Reeves is back in the long-awaited, visually stunning fourth entry in The Matrix saga... and he looks like John Wick

The Rest of the World Exists: Anna Paquin and Margaret

As Kenneth Lonergan's egocentric epic nears its 10th anniversary, Steph Green looks back on the film's remarkable lead turn